A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: From logging to mining

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/29 March) – In the afternoon of Monday, 26 March 2012, I was seated at the back row inside the Cathedral of San Isidro Labrador, Malaybalay City waiting for an ordination ceremony to begin. Frank B. Vendor of San Fernando Rey Parish (San Fernando, Bukidnon) and Leonilo P. Ligutom of Sto. Nino Parish (Cabanglasan, Bukidnon), seminarians of St. Vianney Seminary in Cagayan de Oro City were going to be ordained deacons by Bishop Jose A. Cabantan, D.D. of the Diocese of Malaybalay. For those not familiar with the Catholic sacramental rites, the diaconate ordination is last stage before a seminarian is finally ordained to the priesthood.

Just before the diaconate ordination rites were to begin, my cellphone emitted a sound and a text message grabbed my attention. It came from Fr. Rey Raluto, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Malaybalay who is one of the professors at St. Vianney Seminary. Fr. Raluto just recently finished his doctoral studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium where he wrote his dissertation on Ecological Liberation Theology. His text message read: “Breaking news. Lumads of bukidnon in EXODUS…10 more families frm San Fernando bukidnon opted to leave d town n fear of deyr lies as Aldy Salusad & his armed grp, suspected killer of the village chief of dao (of same town) jimmy liguyon threatens the kin of the slain anti-large scale mining lumad leader. USSP & Kasilo members next to be killed becoz of the latters expose’ to media, provl govt & agencies . let us pray for their safety.”

Just after reading this text, the choir sang the Entrance Hymn and more than 70 priests, Bishop Cabantan, the two would-be deacons and their parents marched down the aisle towards the altar. Needless to say, during the next two hours my mind’s preoccupation shifted from the sacred rites around the altar to the violence-prone mountain villages of San Fernando.

Twenty-five years ago – in the euphoric year of 1987 following the People Power manifestation at EDSA – the mountains of San Fernando were alive with the sound of ordinary folks’ voices demanding the end of logging along Pantaron Ridge. Whatever few photographs were taken of those momentous events show how the poor peasants – men, women and children – barricaded the main road passing through the poblacion of Halapitan at the risk of being run over by the logging trucks owned mainly by the Almendras Logging Company.

It took two full years for this grassroots’ initiative involving poor communities – perhaps one of the first ever to arise in what is now a full-blown country-wide ecological movement – to put an end to the massive logging operations ravishing the few remaining forests across the Pantaron Ridge. In 1989, the David and Goliath story of San Fernando became known throughout the country thanks to the newly restored free media’s coverage of a successful grassroots campaign to save the remaining forests. For just a year before it began, it was unthinkable that the ordinary mayukmok (the hoi polloi) could push rich loggers protected by the mighty Marcos dictatorship’s State machinery to their knees.

Frank B. Vendor was a young boy of 4 when his parents, grandparents, other relatives and neighbors constituted the multitude of peasants who barricaded the roads in Halapitan up to the main national highway in Malaybalay during the two-year period of that struggle. Frank truly was a child of that anti-logging movement in many ways.

As his father, Iskoy, was a kaabag (lay liturgical leader) of the Gagmay’ng Kristohanong Katilingban (GKK or now also referred to as Base Ecclesial Community) in the barangay of Kawayan, roughly seven kilometers from Halapitan, his family was naturally drawn to the church-led action to stop the logging operations. In fact, Iskoy was one of the articulate leaders of this movement. At one meeting of the GKK leaders which he would echo later during a sermon at their chapel’s Kasaulogan sa Pulong sa Dios (Celebration of the Word of God), Iskoy spoke about “hearing God’s voice through the singing of the birds, the rustling of the leaves and the flowing of the river” and that this same voice was demanding of them to stop whatever will destroy the birds, trees and the rivers.

A few of us among the Redemptorist mission team members were assigned to the cluster of barangays including Kawayan. Since we lived among the people during the course of our two-year stay in San Fernando, we found ourselves seeking shelter in the modest home of the Vendors as well as other families and sharing their simple meals. Frank – then a tiny little boy – was everyone’s apple of the eye. He was young enough to be carried on one’s back but old enough to walk around their village. Thus, he was there during the Bible sharing in many homes and the rituals inside their chapel. And when the people’s picket occupied the streets, he tagged along occasionally. He claims that even at that young age, his memories of those events remain intact.

But that was twenty five years ago. The sound of chainsaws cutting hardwood trees in the remaining forests are rarely heard now in the mountains of San Fernando. But other sounds have taken over chiefly those that echo the digging of the ground in search of gold and the panning that follows. From logging, San Fernando now has to face the tragic consequences of mining.

Twenty years ago, the road infrastructure of San Fernando was almost non-existent. The 30-kilometer road from Valencia to Halapitan was a nightmare. It took almost four hours for the jeepney to reach Valencia from Halapitan and one has to wake up at 4 a.m. to be able to catch that ride. From Halapitan to the rest of the municipality especially down the Tigwa River, there was hardly any road. Whatever trail there was interfaced with the river; when there were floods, everything stopped.

Around a decade ago, the roads improved as more money was budgeted for road construction. The target was to connect San Fernando all the way to Tagum City, via Talaingod. Today, even as some portions of this national highway remains difficult to traverse, it is already possible to travel from San Fernando all the way to Tagum with the right vehicle. No wonder, banana plantations are now penetrating the uplands of Davao del Norte towards the Bukidnon border. Soon, more bananas will find their way across the border towards the slopes leading to the Pantaron Ridge.

Meanwhile, it is the prospect of finding gold that has created a vortex erupting in violence in San Fernando. On 5 March 2012, Jimmy Liguyon, the Manobo barangay captain of Dao, San Fernando was murdered. Dao is roughly 40 kilometers from Halapitan but could be reached now by a side road. His murder is directly connected to the small-scale mining that is taking place in this village. The alleged killer – Aldy Salusad aka Butsoy – who is also a Manobo belonging to another clan, until now has not been arrested.

Since 14 March, the kin of the slain barangay chief had to evacuate Dao as Butsoy supposedly has threatened to kill more members of the clan. Fourteen families (with 20 adults and 22 children) have evacuated to the grounds of the Provincial Capitol in Malaybalay, fearing for their lives if they remained in Dao. On 21 March, Jasmine, daughter of Jimmy Liguyon, gave birth to a son while in the evacuation site.

The circumstances surrounding the killing of Liguyon and his clan’s evacuation are quite complex. As my data is still quite limited, I will not even attempt to make an analysis here as to how these tragic events unfolded. But a genealogy of the events could help give some clue as to why Dao could remain a hot spot and could eventually compromise the peace and order situation of San Fernando.

Owing to its isolated location years ago, this part of San Fernando traversing across the mountain range to Agusan was ideal guerrilla zone for the New People’s Army. Allegedly, Butsoy and his father, Benjamin Salusad aka Kumander Nonong used to be part of the NPAs in the area. It is a well-known fact in Mindanao that Lumads were recruited by the NPAs. But as has happened elsewhere, Kumander Nonong broke ranks from the NPA. Eventually he and his men – who total 79 these days – were recruited by the military (Philippine Army) and were trained as CAFGUs. Supposedly, later Butsoy separated from his father and set up his own armed group, now referred to as “bandits”. Col. Jose Ma. Cuerpo, Commanding Officer of the 8th IB, PA has publicly disclaimed that Butsoy’s group is a para-military armed band.

Since gold was discovered in Dao and a constructed road made it accessible for gold prospectors, a complex cast of characters have made its presence there which has created animosity among the original Manobo settlers. This cast includes provincial and local public officials, the various armed groups and – literally – gold diggers coming from the various areas surrounding Bukidnon. All have benefited from the gold found in the place which has found their way to the buyers of gold in Tagum where the price continues to rise. All, except most of the Manobos whose tribal ties have been severed by the divide-and-rule tactics of outsiders. Today, the losers are mainly the Manobos of Dao and as there can only be an escalation of violence in the near future, they are dislocated not only from their ancestral territory but also from the resources that they have owned since time immemorial.

Which brings us back to a sacred rite that also goes back to time immemorial, or at least the dawn of humanity’s era when the idea of ordaining a select person to hold a privileged sacred position within a religious institution arose. This was, of course, further enhanced with Christendom. Which is why today in various corners of the world where a Christian community exists, there is a diaconate ordination as the one where Frank Vendor occupies center stage.

At that sacred rite – given the text message – I thought of Frank and what kind of deacon (and later what kind of priest) he would be to his flock. As a child of the anti-logging movement of the late1980s, would he be now a church leader who would be part of the anti-mining movement? At the rites, there was no indication where he would locate himself within the prophetic biblical tradition of the Church, which has now been expressed in the anti-mining stance of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Association of the Major Religious Superiors of this country.

But can Frank escape his “destiny” passed on by his parents and his community to him given their option to struggle for creation? Following in the footsteps of the late Fr. Satur Neri, a young diocesan priest also belonging to the Diocese of Malaybalay who was killed – twenty years ago – because of his prophetic action to protect the integrity of creation, will Frank dare to follow Satur along that dangerous path?

My prayers reached out to God as he received his commissioning as a deacon. That the God Almighty, Creator of the beautiful world we live in, will protect him from harm as he will now commence his role as preacher of the Good News! (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” and the recently-launched“Manobo Dreams in Arakan.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)